Holding Space for Equitable Sociocultural Risk Management
Keynote remarks for the 2020 Wilderness Risk Management Conference.
Good morning, buenos dias, I greet you from the ancestral, traditional, and stolen lands of the Nisenan (Southern Maidu), Miwok, and other indigenous communities and nations, now Sacramento, California.
These Nations now exist as a range of currently recognized state and federal Tribal entities, as well as many that are non-recognized yet very much still here.
Many bands of Indigenous people made their home here during specific seasons of the year and up through the rivers and valleys. We ask these First Nations peoples of the Past, Present & Future for forgiveness for the genocide and displacement of families and relatives, of culture and connection to land and place. We recognize and respect the enduring relationship that Indigenous People have with their traditional homelands, and the need for healing and reparation with and from non-Native communities. We hope to inspire positive ongoing action and relationship as we demonstrate our commitment to beginning the process of working to dismantle the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism. Through our actions, we can walk the path of repair, reconciliation, and cultural revitalization.
This serves as a reminder not merely that the lands on which we work, gather, recreate, and travel were originally stewarded by many before us on Turtle Island, Abya Yala, and other respective names for this land, past and present. This recognition is but one step in a reparative process that is justice-oriented and addresses historic and systemic injustices.
And that is how we start so that as we tackle this work together, we do not shy away from the complexity of the problems as we engage in the needed creativity and responsibility of solutions.
I recall taking a wilderness first aid class from a tocayo, Jose Gonzalez, whom many of you may know well. Some of his words rung clearly: “Remember, it’s risk management, not risk elimination” and “might this hurt? You bet it will!” With some humor, they captured the reality and grounding of why we were there, knowing that inherent in our outdoor engagements and experiences, there was risk, but that through due preparation and response we need not let it constrict or narrow what we could accomplish, while of course not having it be an excuse for foolishness and carelessness.
Jose also shared a few revelations of his own. We had intentionally designed the class to have bilingual participants. At one point Jose asked the group “so it’s ok if I switch from English to Spanish as helpful?” from which he received a resounding yes. Afterward, Jose shared that it was one of the few times he was able to do so in a class and how affirming and freeing it was for him. It was a sense of cultural connection that made a difference not just for him but also the students — an opportunity present by Jose simply being himself. It was a small example of what we mean when we talk about “being seen, heard, and valued” or even when we talk about “culturally relevant approaches.”
I start with this to ground a direct experience with some key realities.
First, the demographic inevitability that 2050 will look very different from 1950. This has a direct impact and consequence for NOLS, SCA, Outward Bound, and others, and for the field at large, here in the U.S.
This is not from a simple “there will be more ‘people of color’ and we need them as our students.” This means engaging with the necessary and crucial questions of ensuring such communities are not mere objects of programming, but what that means in decision-making spaces and shared and transitional power.
This also impacts larger struggles, from the ongoing protection of our public lands, on which the field relies, to climate change, as there is no planet B.
You’re professionals in this field. As I’ve told many professionals I’ve engaged with, my job isn’t to tell you how to do what you’re good at doing. I am here to support in what I understand you’ve agreed to undertake, a process of growth, of framing for how to do what you do better in relationship to not just engaging, but also valuing and being in allyship with difference. It is one thing for you to have developed a competent and excellent set of expertise in outdoor and wilderness risk management. It is another to ask, or worse deny, why and where the field is not representative of our communities at large. To presume it is purely from individual choice. To assume that the situational space and settings in which our respective organizations were founded are the best conditions in which to thrive in a justice-oriented future. That stating Black Lives Matter and supporting Native sovereignty is essential for our work.
Because the other realities are that much of the spaces we enjoy, and on which we are reliant for our work, come from stolen lands and stolen labor. That systemic, structural, and historic oppression and exclusion were not random and happenstance. We built places and spaces with only some in mind — privilege is not being able to see and account for that, that you see the world as “normative” without accounting how that is not the case for whom the spaces were not designed and built.
So that if we are serious about equitable approaches and inclusion, then we acknowledge that those spaces may need to change. It is one thing to invite more people to the table, it is another to know that the table may need to change.
I know this is not new for some and many of you, still I want to stress the framing so that all the creative, passionate, innovative energy of this field goes into incorporating this rather than challenging or dismissing it.
Because as a field you’ve come together for something very important: the physical wellbeing of participants so that they can benefit from the transformative power of the outdoors. We want participants to connect with the awe of nature, the development of leadership skills, and a myriad of other opportunities that come with guided, facilitated, and structured outdoor programming. For that to happen, participants need to have a relative degree of safety.
And purely from ensuring physical safety, it’s highly effective.
Now, as we can no longer afford the delays of the shifts and changes from the realities I’ve mentioned, we have begun to account for more.
Some of this is not new. We’ve done better in paying attention to emotional health and wellness. Something like a “psychological first aid kit” as noted by Laura McGladrey is important in the same way that the military has had to account for the mental health of soldiers and the reality of PTSD. Of course, it’s an ongoing practice.
So yes, having technical risk management knowledge makes me feel safe. Having peers as professionals with that knowledge and expertise makes me feel safe. I respect and value all of what you do.
Yet often, before any of that, and even when I’ve led families and groups outdoors, what starts the feeling of being safe is one of welcome, belonging, and connection. Where the primary safety concerns are both perceived given a new space, and real given a different lived experience. It taps into the idea of there being “others like me” and that such a space is valued. It is part of the value, strength, and necessity of affinity groups. If you have not had to consider that, it is because you may benefit from the privilege of having the space around you designed such that it is normative for you with the expectation that it should be so for others. This was part of the reason why early on I wrestled with “having to leave my cultura at the trailhead” and why with the founding of Latino Outdoors we would get questions and challenges like “why a Latino Outdoors? There’s no White Outdoors” — — and of course not reflecting on that question and statement.
So yes, we can be professionals in risk management, but even more so than that, I understand this to be the work of leadership development in one of the best classrooms available, the outdoors. And as leaders, we can continue to change and grow.
Those outdoor leadership skills are applicable in indoor settings, and in a spectrum of sociocultural settings. But as all leadership entails, it comes with a sense of responsibility and earned trust beyond a title or an expectation.
When processing and sharing Leave No Trace Principles, I’ve noted how they are one set of guides in minimizing our impact and harm on the land. I say one, because they come from an axiology and epistemology that is eurocentric from settler colonialism. Is it helpful? Definitely. But it is also in response to the very harm inflicted by a mechanistic reductive frame of valuing and devaluing the natural world. Indigenous communities certainly had a different framing and starting point.
Still, when I use Leave No Trace as a framing, I also ask participants to think, now what would a set of principles be in reducing impact and harm on each other as we’re asking to do with the land? What does that Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity in the form of heart and care work look like?
That allows us to co-create and leverage our communal creativity and expertise to do that for each other. To know better and do better for inclusive practices.
Because yes, there are some basics and fundamentals in terms of the human experience in the outdoors. And it is also the case that it can be a very different experience if you are Black in the outdoors (hence the expression of “fill in the blank while Black”) as well as if you as a Native are prescribed how to recreate in ancestral homelands in restrictive ways. And so on for other impacted and oppressed identities and communities.
So my invitation and challenge to us are to consider how we apply our risk management principles and philosophy to continue to ensure that these experiences are equitably accessible to an ever-changing demographic.
For example, when I look at the guiding tenets of this conference:
- If we believe wilderness and outdoor experiences create unique opportunities for growth, it’s important to ask and consider for whom and how that can be different based on historical oppression.
- If we believe there is value in taking risks, and those risks need to be thoughtfully assessed and managed, then we need to account for how different communities experience different types of risk, and how those manifest in urban and wilderness settings.
- And that if we believe that cultural humility supports risk management and is essential in creating inclusive programs, then we are clear in how we are demonstrating that, and how that is spoken as true by those most impacted.
I know many of you are already on this path. For example, this is reflected in session titles from the 2019 conference such as:
- (Living on the Land in a Good Way): Supporting Indigenous Resurgence Through Anti-Colonial Approaches to Risk Management Planning
- What White People Working with Folks from the Global Majority Can Do (and Not Do)
- Wilderness Medicine: Inclusive Practices for LGBTQ, Transgender, and Non-Binary People
What I want to stress is to ensure it is not seen as tangential or supplemental by the field, but as core and essential. That it supports your stated responsibility to share learning in order to promote improved practices across the industry.
Otherwise, we run the risk of our work being for a diminishing few based on historical and institutional exclusion, dependent on what zip code one is born in, or other markers of generational, institutional, and racial privilege.
This invites us to expand and shift our perspectives and framing, especially into a “both/and” since often we may default to an “either/or” as much of the dominant culture stresses on us.
Consider this example:
When we see a tree, we can be trained in that human-object axiology and cognitive epistemology, where we know the tree through counting and measuring and the value lies in objectification. This leads to othering and when we completely otherize all we may see is utility, ownership, or worse.
However, suppose we approached a human-multiverse axiology where value lied in balance of relations and that it came with responsibility to be in ecological community.
A tree can still have utility but it is not reduced to purely such. How often do you think about being in breath with the tree?
This can also open you to understand a statement such as:
“You say that I use the land, and I reply, yes, it is true; but it is not the first truth. The first truth is that I love the land; I see that it is beautiful; I delight in it; I am alive in it.” by Kiowa Native author N. Scott Momaday.
For any who are relatively new on this journey, and trust me, we all have work to do, fragility can set in — a set of defensive reactions triggered by an examination of our power and privilege that can feel accusatory.
To me, this is an invitation to frame that discomfort as an opportunity for learning and growth, rather than withdrawing or harmfully challenging. Because we all have a role to play. As a quote attributed to Inuk Native activist Beatrice Hunter directly states: “Dear White People, No one is asking you to apologize for your ancestors. We are calling on you to dismantle the systems of oppression that they built, that you maintain and benefit from.”
To which I would add, “because a future of collective liberation is possible,” and not just through pollyannaish aspiration, but through hard work and practical application of hope.
So, if you’re committed to this, we need all of you. And for engaging in the discomfort, I offer some questions of considerations that may help:
- Why does this unsettle me?
- What does it mean for me if this is true?
- How can my unease help reveal the unexamined?
- Is it possible that given my identity and positionality there are dynamics I don’t see?
- How does this lens change my understanding?
Prior to closing, I’ll share part of a favorite reading….
We can’t all be friends, and some forms of life will never be compatible. It can never be a totally inclusive, come-one-come-all process, some differences might mean that people cannot work together. Maybe. Differences might also signal potential for practices, orientations, and priorities that are resonant and complementary without becoming the same. Differences might then become starting points for new complicities and the growth of something new.
If relationships are what compose the world — and what shape our desires, values, and capacities — then freedom is the capacity to participate more actively in this process of composition. Friendship and resistance are interconnected: when we are supported, we are more willing to confront that which threatens to destroy our worlds. — Joyful Militancy
The potential of this group is astounding. You are here because you can positively impact lives, and you care about the participant experience. You came together and created this space. Such is the power of creation.
I believe in such a capacity.
This is the opportunity before us, and one I believe we are well-poised to succeed in
Make it so.
With gratitude to Karen Kitchen for references in Land Acknowledgement.